When the Doors of the Church Should NOT Be Opened
“The doors of the church are now open” must be one of the best-known sentences in Black Church life. It’s that time in the service when people are invited to join the church “by letter, on Christian experience, or as a candidate for baptism.” When I was a boy, Rev. Betts used to say those words with a warmth you could cozy into, like a favorite blanket on a damp day. “The doors of the church are now open.”
But sometimes the doors of the church should be closed, y’all! Not only closed, but locked! I couldn’t help share this anecdote from one of the best books on the African-American experience published in recent years, The Warmth of Other Suns. Read this and be glad this ain’t your church (at least I hope it ain’t your church)!
In the summer of 1932, the church actually split into two rival factions as to who should be the pastor. One side was backing the Reverend W. W. Hill, an old-school preacher who had just been ousted; the other was supporting Professor Foster, a starched man with a standoffish wife and brilliant children whom some people saw as having enough influence as it was, seeing as how he already ran the school. The church grew so divided that people were no longer speaking. Enemy lines were drawn. The church had to shut down for two whole months. The authorities in Monroe took away the keys. The church reopened the first Sunday in September 1932, along with the wounds and hostilities that were no closer to healing than the day the church was shuttered. That morning, Sunday school had barely begun when “there arose a contention between the two factions as to who was in charge of the church,” the Chicago Defender reported. There was a question as to whether the apparent victor, Professor Foster, should speak, the Hill people saying it was perhaps best that he not, the anti-Hill faction urging him to go forward. Professor Foster was accustomed to running things. He arose and stood stiff and pious and was reading Bible scripture, when four women walked up to the pulpit and demanded he stop preaching, as if to suggest he had no right to be taking over as he had. It was an outrageous, unheard-of disruption, practically blasphemous, and the church broke into an uproar. Several men rushed the pulpit and began fighting. A deacon backed out of the door, hitting back at those who pursued him and falling down in the street. A parishioner named James Dugans, who was either a supporter of Professor Foster or merely enraged at the show of disrespect, picked up a chair, drew a pistol, and started shooting. A bullet struck a woman named Patsy Daniels in the stomach. Incensed, her father ran to a house next door and got a pistol of his own. The father came back to a fight that had now spilled out to the front of the church. When the first gunman, Dugans, saw the woman’s now-armed father, he shot him in the chest. The bleeding father continued firing as he fell, killing Dugans and wounding three other parishioners. Patsy Daniels died from her wounds. In all, as many as seven people were left wounded, including the dead woman’s father. Professor Foster and his family managed to escape unharmed—physically, in any case. The Monroe police again had to take the keys of the church. Until the congregation could settle its dispute, “ the doors of the church were securely nailed up,” the Atlanta Daily World reported.